“Battle of the Sexes” Movie Review


     Winning performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell, in addition to a spirited supporting cast, make directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes” an enjoyable and timely story about one of the most watched and anticipated sporting events in our history.  The film depicts the true events which led up to 1973’s top women's tennis player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), taking on an aging former men’s tennis star, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), in what was sold as a match that would prove once and for all that men are better than women at everything.  It’s amazing to even believe that in my lifetime, there was actually a large cross section of the male species who truly believed in this type of gender supremacy, but in watching the film, it’s sad when you realize many of the obstacles women faced then are still being dealt with today.

    The script, written by Simon Beaufoy, creates a comedic like atmosphere for the actors to occupy, which of course falls easily into Steve Carell’s wheelhouse and keeps the tone of the film light, save for a few moments in which King’s budding sexuality is explored.  And as much as Carell’s Riggs plays up the male chauvinistic banter in order to drum up interest in his match with King, the film creates a more powerful antagonist with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the tennis association who puts on the biggest events and insists on paying the men about eight times more than the women.  In an early scene, King balks at the nonsensical approach to the business side of these tournaments and effectively withdrawals from participating unless the women’s pay scale is brought more in line with the men.  As the current world number one, and also a clearly respected athlete within the women’s circuit, King is able to get the backing from nearly all of the top women’s players, leaving Kramer essentially without a women’s division.  But being the business man that he is, and a misguided one at that, he moves on, believing it’s the men people want to see anyway.

     As the spry manager of the women in the tour, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) is able to secure funding for a new women’s tournament circuit and the women, led by King, embark on a tour of their own, playing to filled arenas across the country.  The debate amongst those in tennis circles, and likely America as well, as to whether or not women are justified in their quest for equal pay remains a hot topic and is seen by former U.S. Open Champion and Tennis Hall of Famer, Bobby Riggs, as an opportunity to not only make himself relevant again, but also to try and shut down the reasoning behind the insistence that women are as marketable as the men.  Riggs also goes as far as to suggest because of their deficiencies physically, they are simply not as good.

     What we get in the film’s middle and least satisfying act is the struggle King has with her sexuality, as she is tempted on the tour by an attractive hair stylist, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), all the while realizing how their relationship would be perceived publicly given King was married to a man at the time.  There are also a number of scenes meant to flesh out Riggs as a man who has a gambling problem and finds himself on the outs with his wife and benefactor, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), even as he successfully puts on an event where he easily bests another of the women’s circuit’s top players, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).  It’s after this event that King seemingly has that internal flame of competition stoked and agrees to a match with Riggs.  Riggs; however, doesn't believe he needs to practice or train for the event, even though he is now in his mid 50s, given how easily he dispatches Court and knowing Court had recently beat King, who was 29, in a tournament.

     As with most biopics of this nature, the film is held together by the performances of its leads.  And though many may not be aware of this match and its significance historically speaking, “Battle of the Sexes” is carried by Stone and Carell whose characterizations ensure you will find yourself directly in the moment, feeling the power of the event’s importance and how it shaped the future of tennis, as well as the Feminist movement.  It’s also worth noting that when the end credits role and we see photos of the real life players, the images instantly become a feather in the cap of the filmmakers who effectively transformed each actor into a startlingly accurate likeness of the person they were playing.  In addition, they also succeed in creating a crowd pleasing third act that will put a smile on your face whether you are a tennis fan or not.  All of which positions “Battle of the Sexes” for a likely run at several acting nominations as awards season gets into full swing.  GRADE: B+